These are the notes from my sermon preached on 11.21.21 at NWLife Church – the 9th in a series of 10 sermons based on the book of Nehemiah called “When Everything’s On Fire.”
The title of my sermon today is: “Church Without All The BS.”
Up to this point, Nehemiah has had quite the journey… A prayer, a plan, and the gracious hand of God. The favor of the king, permission to go, resources sent along for the work. And the support of the people—so the good work begins. Rebuilding.
And of course there are problems encountered along the way. But Nehemiah is not derailed. He continues. He prevails. The enemy does not succeed. And there are some conflicts among the people, some abusive practices that come to the surface. So Nehemiah has to deal with that too. But even still, the work continues. Restoration. Approaching wholeness…
Glimmers of the Beloved Community, God’s dream for us all.
And it appears that although the work was not easy, it is, in fact, worth it. Better days ahead, for all. Maybe there is life after the fire. Perhaps we can emerge from the ashes and thrive. So, let us believe.
Nehemiah 6 Continued Opposition to Rebuilding
1 Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem, and the rest of our enemies found out that I had finished rebuilding the wall and that no gaps remained—though we had not yet set up the doors in the gates.
2 So Sanballat and Geshem sent a message asking me to meet them at one of the villages in the plain of Ono. [ The plain of Oh-No??!!?!?!?!? Lol. Too easy guys. Next time pick something that sounds pleasant, like Palm Springs—or even The Palm Springs of Washington, not Death Valley... Oh-No, shaking my head ] But I realized they were plotting to harm me,
3 so I replied by sending this message to them: “I am engaged in a great work, so I can’t come. Why should I stop working to come and meet with you?”
4 Four times they sent the same message, and each time I gave the same reply.
5 The fifth time, Sanballat’s servant came with an open letter in his hand, [ Open letters... I mean, sheesh. Never good ]
6 and this is what it said: “There is a rumor among the surrounding nations, and Geshem tells me it is true [ Here's your basic "Many people are saying trope ], that you and the Jews are planning to rebel and that is why you are building the wall. According to his reports, you plan to be their king.
7 He also reports that you have appointed prophets in Jerusalem to proclaim about you, ‘Look! There is a king in Judah!’ “You can be very sure that this report will get back to the king, so I suggest that you come and talk it over with me.”
8 I replied, “There is no truth in any part of your story. You are making up the whole thing.” [ Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies ]
9 They were just trying to intimidate us, imagining that they could discourage us and stop the work. So I continued the work with even greater determination. [ Ya gotta love this guy! ]
10 Later I went to visit Shemaiah son of Delaiah and grandson of Mehetabel, who was confined to his home. He said, “Let us meet together inside the Temple of God and bolt the doors shut. Your enemies are coming to kill you tonight.”
11 But I replied, “Should someone in my position run from danger? Should someone in my position enter the Temple to save his life? No, I won’t do it!”
12 I realized that God had not spoken to him, but that he had uttered this prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. [ This, right here, is discernment... knowing not everything coming from the mouths of Very Religious People should be believed ]
13 They were hoping to intimidate me and make me sin. Then they would be able to accuse and discredit me.
14 Remember, O my God, all the evil things that Tobiah and Sanballat have done. And remember Noadiah the prophet and all the prophets like her who have tried to intimidate me.
15 So on October 2 the wall was finished—just fifty-two days after we had begun.
16 When our enemies and the surrounding nations heard about it, they were frightened and humiliated. They realized this work had been done with the help of our God. [ That's the kinda work I wanna do, right? ]
[ the word of God, for the people of God, thanks be to God ]
* *. *
Nehemiah had a vision of rebuilding Jerusalem so that its people could flourish once again. Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem did everything they could think of to obstruct the progress, to stop the good work from being done.
[ Pause ]
Church, watch out for people who are bent on keeping systems of oppression and inequality in place.
Watch out for those who prosper on the backs of those who are suffering.
Watch out for those who think the whole world is their hamburger.* [ note: this comes from Katie Hays' book, God Gets Everything God Wants ] Like Pharaoh, God will show them it’s not, by whatever means necessary.
Pharaoh thought the whole world was his hamburger, as all empire builders are inclined to believe, and so he believed he could take whatever he wanted from it—including a labor force of enslaved people to build all his stuff.
And so God goes, “Hey, this is not how my world is supposed to work!” And God gets busy on a plan to liberate the enslaved people from Pharaoh… not just Pharaoh the man but Pharaoh the system, Pharaoh the mindset, the way things work when Pharaoh is in charge.
God throws down to Pharaoh: “Let my people go!”
And then Pharaoh’s like, “Nuh-uh. Those are my people. You can’t have ‘em.”
And now they’re wrestling, and Pharaoh’s losing, and the way this story goes, God will stop at nothing to show Pharaoh who’s the boss.
God’s willing to work it out so that nobody gets hurt, but Pharaoh’s not… and if violence is the only rule Pharaoh respects, it’s completely within God’s power to use violence in order to establish that the stuff God made, including people, can’t be dominated by any pretenders to the universe’s throne.
The end result: God gets what God wants. God gets everything God wants.
So, watch out for those who think they are god, those who try to control, those who use people for their gain.
Watch out for those who only criticize and condemn but never offer a helping hand or a better idea.
Watch out for falsehoods, lies, twisted tales, conspiracy theories, and agenda-driven spin.
I don’t know if the devil is in the details, but I do know the devil is in the lies.
Watch out. Keep focused. There is too much good work to be done.
Jesus said, “The thief comes in order to steal and kill and destroy, but I have come that you might have life, life in all its abundance.”
Watch out. Keep yourself firmly planted in the life-giving place and stay away from all that destroys and harms and condemns.
Don’t let the bad guys get you down. Or something like that.
Nehemiah had laser-sharp clarity. He saw through the BS.
And he didn’t let it stick to him. He just shook it off.
I think I’m starting to get there.
Clarity. Seeing through the BS. Shaking it off.
God, help me. God, help us.
There’s a new Barna poll making some headlines this past week. It says that 38% of ministers have considered quitting in the past year.
I know the pandemic has been wearying and difficult for everyone. And, I’m not really sure… maybe 38% of everyone have considered quitting in the past year. Could be.
All I know is that pastoral ministry has been extremely difficult. Not asking for sympathy. Just giving some context.
Over the past several years, I’ve watched friends in ministry crash and burn. Do terrible things. Made the news—and we all know that’s gonna be bad.
It’s easy to get distracted and lose focus. It’s easy to fall for the BS… and especially our own.
I’m a little older now, and I realize this. And it has me focusing in on what I believe matters most. For me, and for the church. I’ve done some writing about it recently…
On what I believe matters in church.
It’s got to have good humor, readily able to laugh at itself and its own goofs and quirks and gaffes and screw ups and oddities.
And the church must not take itself too seriously—that’s far too wearying of an existence for someone who has come to Jesus and discovered the easiness of yoke and lightness of burden and wonderful rest freely given to those with weary souls because of religion-gone-bad.
The church must be quick to admit it does not have all the answers—never did and probably never will—on this side of eternity. It believes saying “I don’t know” is always better than pretending and preaching something not even fully believed by the pretender, the preacher. It knows there’s humility and strength in being honest about what it cannot be sure of. It has realized trust is given to someone who does not lie when they don’t have a full answer.
The church keeps a balance of prophetic fire and gentleness. All fire all the time will burn everything down and leave nothing behind. The fire comes in letting that which is real and alive and resident in one’s own life and experience flow freely. This is not bluster or salesmanship. It’s like the forager talking about mushrooms, the woodworker talking about his favorite type of wood, the chef talking about his best knife. This passion is obvious and yet it is never aggressive or belittling or damaging.
The church is playful and creative in its approach to Scripture, its storytelling, its messaging, its music, its teaching, its programming, and its way of interacting with the community outside its doors. It has good art and believes aesthetics matter. It is not pretentious or stuffy, it is a greenhouse for good ideas and songs and artistic expression to flourish.
The church is not concerned with creating a whole separate Christian ecosystem to live safe and apart from the rest of the world, but rather, it plants itself within the community as a valuable resource to serve anyone who comes. In this way, it’s like a library… changing and evolving as culture and technology and demographics do, in order to best meet the needs of the community. The never-ending love of the God who created us is what it shares in many different ways and creative expressions.
As it is planted in the community, the chuch is unique and local rather than being a franchise or a knock-off of some other “successful” church.
The church views success, not in terms of numbers of attenders or dollars coming in or buildings being built, but in light of loving and serving people to the best of its ability.
The church values real life connection over hits or views or likes or follows. It never aspires to famous or mega or televised or viral.
The church goes with grace every time. In every situation. Mercy triumphs over judgement. Always. Its role in people’s lives is to bless and not curse. It remembers that it’s the kindness of God that leads us to repentance. It chooses to not coerce, manipulate, police, or guilt its people into conformity. And it knows that all the law and prophets are summed up in these two great commands: love the Lord your God… and love your neighbor as yourself.
That’s the big deal and everything else is just human meddling, morality policing, and varying attempts to control people (which is bad religion).
The church looks like its community in demographics and diversity… it is rich and poor, black and white and latinx and pacific islander and east Asian and south Asian. It’s never a social club for one type of person at the exclusion of others. It celebrates culture.
The church sees the gifts of women and empowers them to lead, teach, preach, have authority and agency. It is egalitarian and believes in equality and works for justice. It rejects power trips and authoritarianism and patriarchy and violence.
The church is careful and diligent in untangling itself from bad religion – religion used as a cloak for a political party, religious nationalism, religion entrenched in -isms (liberalism, conservativism, Calvinism, fundamentalism, racism, legalism, etc.).
The church has only one hero, Jesus Christ. It has clergy, but they are not celebrities or heroes. The clergy preach Good News: all is forgiven, Jesus said “It is finished” and it really is… no more shame, no more condemnation, no more sacrifices, no more separation from God, it’s done, it has been done for you, this is God’s gift to you, so please take it! Receive it. Believe it. Walk in it. It’s yours.
this could be enough for
people to come together in community…
sharing in a
for God’s goodness
a deeply held conviction
that our neighbors must be loved
That’s it. Just that.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
I was wrong.
Or maybe the scale was off;
perhaps only a few might be willing to de-prioritize all the other religious lines etched in the sand, those various lines we have battled over since the beginning…
Maybe a handful would?
It’s certainly what I want because
I’m so tired
of getting sand kicked
in my eyes.
And maybe I still believe
in smaller things,
of two or three, gathered
I fantasize that our church would be:
wildly diverse yet unified in purpose
completely over and done with judgment
quick to embrace the arts and celebrate beauty
resolute with Jesus at the center of our identity and practice
worshiping like the black church – all-in body, soul, spirit engagement
moving with ease between charismatic expression and quiet contemplation
deeply committed to caring for our local community through service and generosity
in our feels – quick to laughter and easily moved to tears
informed by the Sermon on the Mount in our politics
a storehouse of good food to share
really gifted at throwing parties
safe, humble, and gentle
working for justice
* * *
I know fantasy isn’t a Bible word. Maybe I’m talking about dreaming of the impossible. That might sound a bit more biblical…
There’s a verse in the Bible (Romans 4.18) about Abraham—and it says he, “against all hope, believed.” This has become an expression in the English language, to “hope against all hope.” It means to continue to hope for something even though it seems unlikely to happen.
Exactly. That’s what I’m talking about.
This is my fantasy and you can’t talk me out of it.
NWLife Church is having an anniversary… any guesses on the number? Who knows?
I guess that’s something.
I’ll turn 50 this coming Spring and, well, that also will be something.
And next Fall, I will have been pastoring this church for 15 years. And that’s something.
It’s not been easy. Especially these past few years.
There have been many distractions.
I feel like I’ve lived through some of my own Tobiah and Sanballat and Geshems…
A few years ago, we got picketed on Vision Sunday by a group of street preachers with their signs that say YOU’RE GOING TO HELL. [ Oh. I see ]
It’s weird. Like, why are they so mad? And why are they here?
I think that’s what Nehemiah had to be thinking…
You guys are angry people. I don’t even think it actually has anything to do with me. I’m just your latest culture war fixation, your imagined boogey man. I mean, don’t you have anything else to do with your time? Maybe you should try building something…
Distractions come and go. Whispered lies of the enemy. Half-truths and twisted tales. Conspiracy theories and misinformation. And today’s boogeyman will be replaced with tomorrow’s.
We’ve got to be reminded: progress doesn’t happen when we are fixated on twisted tales, culture wars, and boogey men.
Progress only happens when we are laser focused on what truly matters.
Randy Dean wrote:
All healthy theology leads us to love humanity; to love ALL humans more deeply, more divinely, more completely, and more toward the miracle of restoration. Any theology, whether intentionally or otherwise, which leads toward a disgust, disregard, dismissal, and detachment from humanity is broken at best, and false at worst. True theology will passionately draw us toward a miraculous faith for the restoration of all people.
What did Jesus say summarized the entire law and prophets?
Love God with your entire being. And love your neighbor as yourself.
That’s it. The whole deal.
At NWLife, our mission statement for many years has been, “Loving God, loving people, and loving life—in a way that brings people together and makes our city a better place.”
Loving God, loving people, loving life.
No culture wars. No boogeymen. No conspiracies.
And, I believe part of my job as the lead pastor of this church is to keep us clear and focused on the mission.
One of the distractions I face, and have faced repeatedly over the years, is competing agendas. Voices that come and claim they know what our church should be doing and what I should be saying.
Oh. Nice. And thank you for your input.
I guess I appreciate your boldness in overreaching.
So, thank you. But… no thanks.
Because here’s the deal: if it’s not about loving God and loving people, then I’m out. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Hide yo wife, hide yo kids.
Just, no. No thank you.
And let me be clear: if hating a particular political party has outsized your love for neighbor, that isn’t Christianity. It’s something else. And we won’t do that here.
This week a number of our people gathered to put together Thanksgiving groceries, write cards, assemble flower arrangements, and drop in some Martinelli’s apple cider—before heading out to deliver them to families in our community who are in need.
That’s what we do.
Loving God and loving people.
The fulfillment of all the law and prophets.
But what happens when we drift? Over time, we end up way off.
And I think maybe that’s how some Christians have become so angry. So unlike Jesus. So full of every-other-agenda-besides-loving-God-and-loving-people.
Drifting. Over time.
And now they’ve arrived in the wrong state. Completely off target. Lost.
I don’t think most do this intentionally. But it happens. Oh boy it happens. Which is like a gut check. I do not want to arrive in the wrong state, completely off target, lost. No sir.
Jesus, give me your laser focus.
William Sloane Coffin once wrote:
I believe we need to claim the kinship of all people, to recover the prophetic insight that we belong to one another, every one of us from the pope to the loneliest wino on the planet. From a religious perspective, that’s the way God made us. From a Christian perspective, Christ died to keep us that way, which means that our sin is only and always that we put asunder what God has joined together.
God, help us to recover this prophetic insight.
Nothing matters more than loving you and loving our neighbor… whoever that is, and in whatever state of dis-grace.
Amen, and amen.
Let it so be.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, riffing on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, wrote this in his 2004 book, “God Has A Dream”—
God says to you, “I have a dream… it is a dream, of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts.
When there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassions and love and caring and sharing. I have a dream that my children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, my family.
Yes. And Amen.
May it be. Now and forevermore.